Turn on the news and you’re almost guaranteed to see a story about some Western kid running off East to join ISIS. But not everyone who flees home to join some far away terror group has easy-to-see connections with it. Go looking, and you’ll find a million unique motives; ranging from the sad, to the dark, to the bafflingly mundane.
10. The Teenage Swedish Girl Who Joined ISIS
Many teenagers run away to fight for ISIS. Some counts put the number of foreign teenagers among their ranks at up to 2,000. But Marilyn Nevalainen from Boras, near Gothenburg, may be unique in that she had no idea who they were or what they did when she joined.
Nevalainen was only 15 when she left the comforts of Sweden for the grinding poverty and constant violence of Syria. Pregnant by her 19-year old Muslim boyfriend, she claims she had never heard of ISIS or even Islam when she left the country. Her story is that her boyfriend became obsessed by jihadist websites after they’d been going out a short while, then tricked her into taking a bus across Europe to the Turkey/Syrian border. It was only when she was taken into the group and became an ISIS bride that she figured it out.
Originally a member of the group, Nevalainen eventually became a hostage until she was freed by Kurdish forces in 2016. With her jihadist boyfriend dead in an airstrike, it seems unlikely she will be returning to Syria any time soon.
9. The Dutch Student Who Became a FARC Spokesperson
Aged 19, Dutch student Tanja Nijmeijer made a simple decision that would drastically alter the course of her life. She traveled to Colombia to become an English teacher. Nothing unusual about that, except for how Nijmeijer dealt with the grinding poverty visible in the capital Bogota. She got angry. Really angry.
From a comfortable, middle class family, Nijmeijer couldn’t see why children had to live on the streets while other Colombians became wealthy. When she complained to a professor at her Colombian university, the professor accused her of hypocrisy. So Nijmeijer decided to take action. With the professor’s help, she tracked down and signed up with the notorious FARC.
The oldest leftwing insurgency movement on Earth, and one of the world’s best-funded terror groups, FARC have spent over 50 years trying to bring down the Colombian government. Nijmeijer apparently thought joining their ranks would help create an equal society, where no Colombian child would have to suffer in poverty again. Instead, she wound up as the public, European face for a gang of drug runners, killers, and child soldiers.
That’s not to say Nijmeijer regretted her rash decision. Over 12 years after joining the group, she is now its English-language spokesperson at the current peace talks. Although she still claims she would die for FARC, some suspect she is little more than a hostage herself.
8. The Middle Class Brit Who Joined Jabhat al-Nusra
If you’ve never heard the name Jabhat al-Nusra before, you should know they’re basically al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. In 2015, they had an unlikely new convert join their ranks. Lucas Kinney was a rich, middle class British kid who grew up attending Catholic schools in the Home Counties. You may be familiar with his father Patrick’s work and not realize it: he was an assistant director on movies like Braveheart and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As a teenager, Lucas wanted to be a priest. Now he was telling the world via YouTube videos that he wanted to kill his fellow countrymen in a jihadist suicide attack.
Kinney’s route to al-Nusra is still the subject of some speculation, but there are a few details that stand out. Despite spending his teenage years in Saudi Arabia and Egypt (his stepfather was an airline manager frequently posted abroad), he appears to have radicalized in Vienna. After meeting some hardliners on his Middle Eastern studies college course, he converted to Islam. The next step is one we’ll depressingly hear a lot in this article. He fell in love.
Kinney apparently has a wife in Syria who convinced him to come over. Being a directionless drop out, Kinney agreed. From there, his passion for Islam morphed into a desire to become a radical and carve out an extremist kingdom in the carnage of Syria. It was the ultimate expression of bored, alienated youth, and one that has led him to do some terrible things.
7. The Baltimore Journalist Turned Libyan Rebel
When Matthew VanDyke first appeared alongside anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya’s Arab Spring, you could have been forgiven for thinking he was just doing his job. A journalist by trade, VanDyke had previously made documentaries covering all sorts of conflicts. Only this time, VanDyke wasn’t there as an observer. He was there as a fighter.
His route onto the battlefields of Libya is perhaps one of the strangest in this article. After going through a period of intense isolation in his 20s, VanDyke decided to set off on what he called a “crash course in manhood.” In this case, ‘manhood’ meant taking a glorified gap year to the world’s trouble spots and getting up to no good. At one point in 2010, he befriended a large group of Libyans. When the Arab Spring hit the country in 2011, VanDyke decided to go join his friends fighting with the rebels. All this was part of his manhood crash course.
In Libya, VanDyke took selfies of himself shooting government soldiers, got himself blow up, and wound up in one of Gaddafi’s prisons. Freed when the dictator fell, he was returned to America, only to vanish again when Syria disintegrated. He was last heard of in 2015, raising a private army in Iraq to fight ISIS with.
6. The Punk Rocker Who Became ISIS’s Social Media Guru
If you’d met Sally-Anne Jones at her Kent home in early 2013, you would almost-certainly have been unimpressed. A former punk rocker in her mid-40s, Jones was living on benefits and obsessed with witchcraft and conspiracy theories. Her last job had been working as a perfume saleswoman for L’Oreal, something she’d been uniquely bad at.
Then, in May of 2013, this former punk feminist unexpectedly converted to Islam. By the end of the year, she was living in Syria and working as a social media guru for the then-small militant organization ISIS.
For all it sounds like the culmination of a dissolute life, Jones’ decision to become a female jihadist likely comes down to a depressingly familiar urge. Just before she left England, Jones had started a sexual relationship with Junaid Hussain, a 19-year hacker who wanted to join ISIS. Apparently in love, Jones followed Hussain to Syria, sadly taking her 10-year old child with her. Although Hussain was killed by an airstrike in 2015, Jones continues to Tweet for ISIS, advocating the beheading of Christians “with a blunt knife.” The US, UK, EU and UN currently list this lovelorn loser as a wanted terrorist.
5. The Swedish Neo-Nazi Carving a White ‘Utopia’ in Ukraine
With Syria and Iraq in meltdown, most of the world seems to have forgotten about the war in eastern Ukraine. Yet the Donbass conflict is nearly as messy as that in the Middle East. Alongside official Ukrainian forces, paramilitary and Neo-Nazi ‘terrorist’ groups are battling violent insurgents and clandestine Russian soldiers. Some have even attracted foreign fighters, such as Mikael Skillt.
A Swedish neo-Nazi, Skillt joined the Azov special force. Tolerated by the Ukrainian government, but far from official, Azov is to Donbass what the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force was to Northern Ireland’s Troubles. In other words, it is a vicious, semi-illegal group with an extremist ideology. An ideology Skillt found disturbingly close to his own.
Skillt’s goal in joining Azov was to create a pure white state within Europe. In 2014, he claimed he actually wanted to topple the government in Kiev and spark a continent-wide race war. Like his political opposite Tanja Nijmeijer in FARC, he joined more for ideological than personal reasons, apparently hoping to stop Ukraine from becoming as tolerant of Jews and homosexuals as Sweden is. In other words, his motivation was bred purely from hate.
4. The White Widow of al-Shabaab
Uniquely on this list, Samantha Lewthwaite may be more famous to English speakers than the group she joined. Known as the ‘White Widow’, she was involved in the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya that left over 60 innocent people dead. How a shy girl from Aylesbury, England became one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists is a strange tale indeed.
The Kenya attack came while Lewthwaite was working for al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist group that is currently trying to decide whether it works for al-Qaeda or ISIS. But her first encounter with Islamic jihad came long before. In 2005, her then-husband was one of the four men who exploded himself on London’s transport network, killing 52 innocent people and injuring 700. At the time, Lewthwaite condemned her husband’s actions. Yet she remained part of the Islamic extremist community. In 2008 she moved to South Africa and married another jihadist a hate preacher had introduced her to.
Interestingly, what sparked Lewthwaite’s flight to Somalia and al-Shabaab appears to have been police incompetence. In late 2011, she got in trouble for credit card fraud and involvement with a suspected bombing plot. When South African police went to arrest her, she allegedly bribed them and fled the country. With nowhere else to go, and a ‘martyr’ husband on her CV, she fled into the arms of the first extremist group she could find.
3. The Self-Radicalized Australian Teen
Depending on how you look at it, the story of Jake Bilardi is either a sad one about mental illness, or a dark warning about teenage impulsiveness. An Australian teen who grew up in an anti-Muslim family, Bilardi is unique in that he wasn’t radicalized by anyone or drawn into extremism by love or personal experience. He radicalized himself by reading about politics on the internet.
Like many politically aware teens, Bilardi was fond of calling out the USA’s hypocrisy in dealing with the Middle East. While most are content to channel that anger with the world into trendy apathy and/or a journalism career, Bilardi wasn’t most people. A bullied loner, he was seemingly suffering from mental illness. Old blog posts found online document a kid who thinks hidden cameras are watching his every move, and whose family is plotting to brutally murder him. Apparently this paranoia eventually latched onto Islamic extremism.
Under his own steam, Bilardi contacted first al-Nusara, and then ISIS. He went to the group saying he wanted to die and asked if he could be made a suicide bomber. Unsurprisingly, the group agreed. In 2015, Bilardi detonated a car bomb in the middle of Ramadi, Iraq, with himself inside it. He was 18. No other casualties were reported.
2. South Africa’s Real-Life Expendables
We’re sure you’ve heard of the Sylvester Stallone movie The Expendables and it’s bazillion or so sequels. What you might not be aware of is that it’s secretly a documentary. There really are a bunch of guys approaching retirement who work as a fighting force across the globe. Only instead of being former action stars, they’re former racists. Old soldiers for South Africa’s apartheid regime, these expendables make their money helping out various governments – from the legitimate, to the deadliest terrorist states.
In 2015, a group of these South African mercenaries made headlines by helping Nigeria’s government fight against Boko Haram. However, they’ve not always been on the right side of history. In the Arab Spring, they helped out Mad Dog Gaddafi, at a time when the Libyan leader was openly running a terrorist state (Libyan intelligence is long thought to have been behind the Lockerbie plane bombing in the skies over Scotland).
Interestingly, their motives are largely down-to-Earth and kind of grimy. Most of these soldiers are now dirt poor and feel cast aside by the new, multi-cultural South African state. They take dirty money fighting in wars around the world so they can put their kids through college, or get their grandkids enrolled in a decent school.
1. The German Rapper Who Joined ISIS
For a long time, Denis Cuspert publically went by the name of Deso Dogg. A German rapper, he was a fixture on the Berlin underground scene in the mid-2000s, and had a personal life that was nearly as well-known. A libertine, Deso Dogg’s free time seemed to revolve around taking a crap-ton of drugs and sleeping with plenty of women.
In other words, he was living the hip-hop dream (or at least a low-budget, German, version of it). When planning for his obituary, Berlin’s low-circulation hip-hop magazines presumably thought Deso would be going down in a shoot-out or at the end of a needle. Not even close. In 2015, Cuspert was killed by a US airstrike. The reason? He had left Berlin to become an ISIS propagandist in Syria.
Cuspert’s conversion is unusual, in that it can be traced to one precise moment. In 2010, the rapper was in a near-fatal car crash and had a near death experience. Immediately afterwards, he converted to Islam and exchanged rap for a Muslim singing career. Not long after that, he began talking about waging jihad in Germany. German police immediately raided his apartment and found a ton of guns. Whacked with an 1,800 Euro fine, Cuspert instead skipped the country for an al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Egypt. From there, it was only a short journey to his eventual death as an ISIS propagandist working in Syria.